- "Indian Kids Can't Write Sonnets":Re-membering the Poetry of Henry Tinhorn from the Intermountain Indian School
MeDawn wrapped in dull white gives birth to brilliant light while the shadows of the night disappear in mortal fright. Oh, what a tragic sight!Damned if that makes me right! The whole world locked, uptight. Something in me wants to fight. In fact, I just might … For who knows what is right?—Henry Tinhorn (Diné)
"Remember Me by My Poems": Introducing Henry Tinhorn
In the late 1960s, hired to teach language arts at the Intermountain Indian School, Alexa West proposed a creative writing class that she described as a course for self-discovery. The school administrators' immediate response was simple: "Indian kids can't write sonnets."1 She persisted and ultimately received approval to incorporate creative writing as part of Intermountain's larger language arts program. West's class was not necessarily unique within the broader scope of boarding school pedagogy. In fact, she became part of a network of boarding school teachers who circulated their students' writings in a journal called the Arrow.2 In a letter exchange with the journal's editor, Terry D. Allen,3 West expressed surprise at the aptitude of her student poets and encouraged Allen to feature their poetry in future Arrow publications. She writes, "I have a very small (10) creative writing class this year with one very bright boy, Henry Tinhorn. … At first when Henry's work started coming in, I was almost dead sure it was plagiarized (see what a suspicious mind I [End Page 25]
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have!). However, I haven't been able to trace it to anything else. He really is a bright rebel so I'm almost convinced it is his."4 Beyond West's surprise when confronted with the writings of her Diné (Navajo) student poets, her description of Tinhorn as a "bright rebel" poet highlights the potential of his poetic resistance to the systematic assimilationist agenda of the federal boarding school system.
While West recognized an exceptional energy in Tinhorn's poetry, he describes himself in a way similar to the experience of many Diné youth throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Born into poverty in Arizona, his family moved throughout the Southwest as his father, who served the community as a traditional medicine man, worked for various mining companies to provide for his family of eight children.5 Describing his transient early childhood, Tinhorn writes, "I remember one time during the winter, my father use to take me out in my birthday suit and chop a hole in the pond back of our hogan and make me go in. He told me this would make me tough, but I don't know if it did [End Page 26] any good or not though."6 The family then moved to Dennehotso, Arizona, where his father—like many Diné men of the time—found employment in the neighboring uranium mine. Over the next few years, Tinhorn's father endured a series of radiation-related complications that ultimately took his life when Tinhorn was only ten years old.
In Dennehotso, prior to his father's death, Tinhorn attended a boarding school through the second grade before his parents enrolled him in the Indian Placement Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,7 sending him first to a Latter-day Saint foster family in Scottsdale, Arizona, and subsequently to a second family in Thatcher, Arizona. According to Eileen Quintana (Diné), one of Tinhorn's three surviving siblings,8 when he was home in Dennehotso for the summers, he spent much of his time at night under the kerosene lamp with a notebook and pencil: "His notebook was always full of writing."9 Eileen describes further that as a boy, Tinhorn was a kind, protective brother, especially after the passing of his father. Tinhorn was the type of boy who sent money home when he was away to help his mother, a kinship obligation...